Lately I’ve been listening to The Message on CD as part of my daily spiritual practice. I find the language of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of scripture often catches my imagination and helps me think about how relevant the words of Jesus are for my own life.
I have long owned a printed version of The Message, but listening on CD forced me to hear for the first time Peterson’s introduction. It is too good not to share:
This is Eugene Peterson and this is the Introduction to The Message: The New Testament.
The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It was and is hard to believe, seemingly too good to be true. But one by one men and women did believe it—believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them.
To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots, had the first word on everything, had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing had to be re-centered, re-imagined and re-thought.
They went at it with immense gusto. They told stories of Jesus and arranged his teachings in memorable form. They wrote letters; sang songs; they prayed. One of them wrote an extraordinary poem based on holy visions.
There was no apparent organization to any of this. It was all more or less spontaneous, and to the eye of the casual observer, haphazard. Over the course of about fifty years these writings added up to what would later be compiled by the followers of Jesus and designated “the New Testament”. Three kinds of writing: eye-witness stories, personal letters, and a visionary poem make up the book. Five stories, twenty-one letters, one poem.
In the course of this writing and reading, collecting and arranging with no one apparently in charge, the early Christians, whose lives were being changed and shaped by what they were reading, arrived at the conviction that there was, in fact, someone in charge.
God’s Holy Spirit was behind and in it all.
In retrospect they could see that it was not at all random or haphazard, that every word worked with every other word, that all the separate documents worked in intricate harmony. There was nothing accidental in any of this; nothing merely circumstantial.
They were bold to call what had been written, “God’s Word” and trusted their lives to it. They accepted its authority over their lives. Most of its readers since have been similarly convinced.
A striking feature of all this writing was that it was done in the street language of the day, the idiom of the playground and marketplace. In the Greek speaking-world of that day there were two levels of language: formal and informal. Formal language was used to write philosophy and history, government decrees and epic poetry. If someone were to sit down and consciously write for posterity it would of course be written in this formal language with its learned vocabulary and precise diction. But if the writing was routine, shopping lists, family letters, bills and receipts, it was written in the common, informal idiom of everyday speech. Street language. And this is the language used throughout the New Testament.
Some people are taken aback by this, supposing that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be elevated, stately and ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus, his preference for down-to-earth stories, and his easy association with common people gets rid of that supposition.
For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping he might approve when he sees how hard we try.
And that is why the followers of Jesus, in their witness and preaching, translating and teaching, have always done their best to get the message, the Good News, into the language of whatever streets they happen to be living on.
In order to understand the message right, the language must be right. Not a refined language that appeals to our aspirations after the best, but a rough and earthy language that reveals God’s presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our elbows in the soil and ordinary-ness of our lives, and God is the furtherest thing from our minds.
This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the message current and fresh, understandable in the same language in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word for word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas into the way we actually think and speak.
Spend some time reading The Message and see if it captures YOUR imagination . . .